(See the man running. The thing that was a man, running. Skittering like a cockroach that's lost a leg or two. He thinks he can run away from what he did and what was done. Somewhere in the mechanical workings of his cockroach mind he thinks that if he gets away from it it won't have happened. Close the door and it's not there. Convenient, the way the human mind works. Convenient for the moment. For those who take the long view-- not convenient at all.)


He was crying. It hurt so much and he couldn't get out. Room after darkened room, blood sticky on the floor, everywhere a sweet disgusting stink. Horrible, choking his breath. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't get out. Get out. Horror was coming after him, it was right behind him, it was going to kill him when it caught him. Run. Run. Run away-- He put a hand to the rip in his body where the blood was pouring out. It felt like razors in his flesh. He screamed with the pain. Red pain in his belly. Red pain in his head. If only it didn't hurt so much, if only I could get my breath. If only I could *think*.


Somebody, please. Somebody, please. I have to go to the castle. Find her. Save her. I have to save her. Somebody please, let me get out,  I'll get outside and start again, I'll find the castle I'll find Kanan I'll find Kanan--


"It's no good, Gonou," she said. He looked up, where he was doubled over with the breath-snatching agony of his belly. He stared desperately through the half-light, trying to see. Dark eyes, dark hair. Kanan? Is that you, Kanan?


"Kanan," he said, and reached out a hand. Saw wicked claws, sharp as razors; saw dark patterns running down the skin of his blood-stained arm. He screamed at the sight--he tried to scream. His voice wouldn't come. Air gasped out of him, out of lungs that couldn't breathe. He choked on terror as a man chokes on blood when the knife goes into his heart.


"Stop," she said. Hands on his shoulders, too strong to resist. Strong hands and arms pulled him up. Something cool and rational came into his mind like a shaft of November light, cutting a path through the redness. The pain and the horror were there still, but stopped on the other side of the gate. He saw them but didn't feel them. He looked at the dark eyes.


"I'm Gonou," he said. Believe me, please believe me. "It's Gonou."


"I know."


The relief of that made him weak, that she saw through the awful thing that had happened to him. Saw the truth. And at that the facts of the matter came into his head, clear, black and white, no longer confused. The world had ended. There was no more room for him in it. No place to go back to, no-one he could be any more. It was all over. And by some unexpected mercy his life was indeed over. He was dying. He didn't even have to try to salvage an existence from the mess he had made. Coward, he thought, but it didn't matter. Facts were facts. He was dying, thank God, and though it was cowardly to die he was so glad he was doing it.


"I'm dying," he said. He didn't hurt as much as he had, barely hurt at all. Finally he could see the woman he was holding on to who was keeping him on his feet. It wasn't Kanan, because Kanan was dead. His curved talons were black against her white skin. He wanted to cry again, for the pity of this ending, the hideousness of his body now that had once been such a friend to him, but his tears had all sunk inside of him. They were a deep pool in his heart and he was sliding slowly into it.


"You are," she agreed.


"I wish," he said. "I wish--" So many things he wished, but this especially. The hands Kanan had loved, his hands that were so horrible now. If he could only get rid of them before he died. Do I have the strength to cut them off myself? Could I- could I ask her to do it for me?


"Mnnh? What?"


"These hands. I want to be rid of them. Kanan- when I meet her--I don't want to- to frighten her..." He stopped, seeing the answer in her face. Your face, your eyes, your ears- all of you is youkai. She won't even know who you are. He groaned aloud without thinking, and it wasn't a groan, it was a beast's howl. In shame and despair he covered his face with his hand, claws and all.


"You discarded your humanity, Cho Gonou. You did it yourself, through your own actions. Do you want it back now?" Was there a trace of contempt in the voice?


"I'm sorry," he said. "I want only to die as a man... if I could... if--"


"Umm. Maybe. Tell me your crime, that made you what you are now."


"I killed," he said at once. "I killed half the men of my village for betraying us, for giving her to the monster. They were small people, even the ones who led them, and afraid for their own women and families. Probably most of them just went along with what was decided. Cowards and selfish, no more than that, but I killed them as if each had been the one to say 'Take her.'" He drew breath, weary. "I killed the youkai tribe. All of them. Every one I saw. It was like stepping on ants. I--" he swallowed. "I liked doing it. It made me happy to think they wouldn't exist any more in this world. I didn't care what they had done or not done, and to whom. I just wanted them dead."


He stopped. There was an odd sensation. He put his hand up to his ear, touched metal. Touched his ear. Round, soft again, not pointed as before. His eyes opened in surprise and caught the glint in the woman's eyes.


"Go on," she said.


Go on? There was more?


"There's more," she said, as if he had spoken aloud. "Before that."


Before. Before when he'd been with Kanan. Before when... "I always despised them," he said slowly. "Not the children, of course. The children... the children are innocent, and happy, and being with them- it's different. But their parents, the villagers-- I had nothing to say to them. They didn't understand. They were strangers- they couldn't understand. They- they tried to be friends with us. When we first came to the village- they came visiting, brought us welcoming presents..." The men met on the street- 'Hey Gonou! You free Saturday night? We got a little poker game at the bar Saturdays, think you could make it?' The women at the market- 'Ah, Kanan-san. Sunday afternoons, ne, we have a sewing circle, we take it turn and turn about at our houses, we'd be so pleased if you could come...'


"I thought it was curiosity and small-town prying. I wanted nothing to do with them. I felt being with them would make me dirty somehow. It would have taken me away from Kanan, and I didn't want to be away from her more than I had to." He remembered what it was like, and the memory was like sun shining on him. "It was so wonderful with her, being together at last," he told the woman, to make her understand. "We thought alike. We felt alike. We were like the same person in two bodies, and I needed nothing more than that. I didn't want--" he looked into the dark eyes in front of him and understood. "I didn't want the others. I didn't need them. I thought we were sufficient to ourselves, in our happy little world. And if I hadn't thought that, maybe... Maybe they wouldn't have given her to the demons." The world changed a little, became darker. His eyes were letting in less light. And the suffocating smell of blood and excrement diminished and became bearable. He touched his left ear again, touched another piece of metal next to the first. Touched it with the long-clawed fingers of his youkai hand.


"There's more?" he asked. The woman nodded.


Coldness crawled up his spine. He could see the shape of the thing he had to say, could see its dark outline in his mind, and shrank desperately from looking at its face. He could say 'I can't think of anything' and leave it at that. If he did he would die in peace- still with his youkai body, still with the clawed hands like the hands that had taken Kanan from him, the hands that had gripped her and-- and-- His heart hammered in sudden terror. Kanan would never love him if he came to her with hands like that. He put his cowardice from him and looked at the last and greatest of his crimes.


"I lied," he said quietly. "We weren't as one. We were two people alone in our own realities. When she was being taken away, by force and in terror, I knew nothing. I sensed nothing. I would have known if I'd loved her as I said I did, if I was as close to her as I said I was. But I was blind and deaf at the time when she needed me most. 'I'll protect you,' I said. 'I always know what you're feeling,' I said, and she believed me. I betrayed her, but she was faithful to me. She waited for me, through all her ordeal, when she wanted to die. She wouldn't betray me by dying without me. But she couldn't stay alive, not with someone like me, a lying fool who thought-- we could just go away again- That if w-we were together- it w-wouldn't- matter what- what had happened..." Tears ran down his face, and a ferocious pain exploded in his gut as if it had been ripped open anew. He cried aloud and stumbled against the woman. He would have fallen to roll screaming on the ground, but her arms, her terrible strong arms, held him upright. He grasped her shoulders and leaned against her. And saw, through his darkening vision, his soft and ordinary hands, the nails short and a little ragged. He closed his eyes, willing the final blackness to take him.


"Cho Gonou," she said. "Warii, na? Not yet."  There was a mouth on his own, not a woman's mouth, strong and dry and too hard for a woman. His eyes flew open as a wave of energy ran through him, crackling to his fingertips.


"That should do you for as long as it takes," she said. He gasped again in surprise and sudden cold. He was wet through. The rain was falling about him in sheets, a lowland rain heavy and soft and full of the smell of fields. He was standing out in the open air with trees about him somewhere and no sense at all of the mountains that should be there. The woman let him go and he swayed a little, the pain in his gut starting to gnaw through the shock.


"Go," the woman said. "Go to the meeting that awaits you. And this time see if you can get it right." She turned him about, one strong hand on his arm, and gave him a shove in the middle of his back that sent him stumbling along the muddy path.



Oct-Nov '02